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Dirk Schlimm

Professor, Philosophy

Q: What story or anecdote can you share with students that might motivate them or inspire them to further develop their skills as academic writers?

A: One way of approaching writing academic papers it to think of them as paintings or rock songs and follow the lead of great painters and musicians.

Many artists always carry a notebook or sketchpad with them, because you never know when a new insight, a creative thought, or an interesting idea comes by. When it comes, you want to be able to hold on to it, so that you can revisit it at a later time and explore its potential. I once read in an aphorism by Lichtenberg, that most people have four to five really great ideas every year: what distinguishes successful people from the rest, is that the latter forget these ideas, while the former, in contrast, make something out of them.

Once in a while I browse through my growing list of potential ideas and if one of them strikes me as particularly interesting, I try to develop it in broad strokes, sketch the structure of a paper, and flesh it out fairly quickly as a rough draft. And by "rough", I mean rough. At this stage there is no pressure in getting everything right, because most of these notes will later be discarded anyway. Once the first draft is done, it's: revise, revise, and revise. In 1907 Picasso had painted hundreds of sketches and studies for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", one of his masterpieces. Bruce Springsteen is reported to have filled over 50 pages of his notebook with drafts for "Born to Run". During this phase it is also useful to get some feedback, from colleagues, friends, or anybody who's willing to talk about or even read it, really. This helps with keeping in contact with the audience, the readers, preventing that I spin my own wheels for too long.

In short, my advice for writing academic papers is: Keep an eye open for good ideas (they are out there!), hold on to them (jot them down), and then spend a lot of time (and I really mean a lot) honing them.

Recommended reading:

"Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#661 Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar"